On Recognizing Deep Fragility

 

Eastern Hemisphere from Space Nasa High Resolution

If we take what amounts to the very long view of the matter it’s quite easy to see how both the tradition of human rights and transhumanism emerge from what are in effect two different Christian emphasises on the life of Christ. Of course, this is to look at things from the perspective of the West alone. One can easily find harbingers of both human rights and transhumanism outside of  Christianity and the West in Non-Western societies and religious/philosophical traditions in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism among others. For now though, lets stick with seeing things through the lens of the Western tradition alone.

Perhaps the primary source for human rights in Christianity would be the idea of Christ as God relocated into the fragility of a human body, a consciousness supremely sensitive to the most vulnerable among us- the sick, the poor, the excluded, the powerless and insisting on the spiritual equality of human beings. Roots of transhumanism can be found in another Christ tradition- the idea of man made God, the desire to transcend human limits to seek and find enlightenment.

Putting aside the elitism of the gnostics, such doubled vision need not necessarily be understood as the source of irreconcilability and conflict, but more like a gestalt drawing where two pictures can exist in one. What picture one sees becomes a matter of what you are looking for at the moment.

Historically zooming in a little closer to the Age of Enlightenment we can again see both the tradition of human rights and something like a proto- transhumanism existing side by side. If an enormous increase in the span of biological or material longevity is taken to be the sine qua non of transhumanism, then the Marquis de Condorcet who predicted in his 1794 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit that:

….a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect either of extraordinary accidents or of the flow and gradual decay of the vital powers and that the duration of the middle space of the interval between the birth of man and this decay will itself have no assignable limit. (368)

Was at the same time a staunch defender of much human rights as we would now understand them- the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and political rights as they had been articulated in the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and especially in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Yet, if if human rights and proto-transhumanism can often be found right next to one another, so to speak, in both Christianity and the Enlightenment it is certainly difficult to argue that such is the case today. Or only if we narrowly define rights in terms of so-called “negative rights” that is liberties which are used by many transhumanists to argue that they have a right to pursue transcendence, augmentation, and increased powers. How then did the two become so clearly separated in our consciousness?

Often the emergence of human rights and transhumanism is presented sequentially with human rights appearing first and transhumanism or posthumanism occurring afterwards. You find this in Steve Fuller who characterizes human rights (both economic and political) as “humanity 1.0” whereas posthumanism is the newer “humanity 2.0” a separate and sometimes rivalrous utopian project.

This kind of temporal positioning of the utopian project to universally achieve human rights as the ideal of the past with posthumanism as a set of goals for the future is, despite its intuitive appeal, not very historically accurate. For the sharp separation of the human rights and transhumanism can only be dated to their emergence as two clearly defined utopian projects.

It might be surprising to learn exactly how contemporary the appearance of these movements as clearly distinguishable utopian projects actually is. For starters, the very recent appearance of the global movement for human rights is something that has been stressed strongly in recent years by Marxist scholars who want to alert us the inadequacies of the rhetoric of human rights in providing a path through which lasting change in the conditions of humanity in the early 21st century might be achieved. The perspective of this critique can be found in the political writings of the activist and fiction author China Mieville, but by far the most comprehensive argument for both the contemporary nature of human rights and their inadequacy is found in the work of the historian Samuel Moyn.

In his The Last Utopia: Human Rights in Human History Moyn makes a pretty compelling case that far from being the telos of history human rights emerged as the only 20th century utopian project left standing in the 1970’s. For Moyn, human rights emerged as the dominant utopian narrative precisely because all other utopian projects had failed.  Soviet style communism proved itself a failure not with its Eastern European collapse in 1989 but with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 which showed that state communism could not be reformed by democratic means.

Liberalism had failed with the American debacle in Vietnam, and even self-determination which had since the American and French Revolutions had been seen as the only path through which rights could be truly secured had proven itself a failure as the new post-colonial states failed to not only institute rights but went on the offensive against national minorities.

Unlike other utopian projects Moyn holds that human rights was able to survive because it was moralistic rather than programmatic. It gave idealistic youth in the West something to focus their energies on that ultimately had little bearing on the actual political regime either domestically or internationally. The rhetoric of human rights gave communist dissidents a moral kludge with which they could hammer away at Eastern bloc violations of human rights without calling for the end of the communist project and without the need to insight revolution.

I have some problems with Moyn’s insistence on an extremely sharp historical separation between what we understand as human rights and what came before. We have known that human rights and self-determination (in terms of peoples) have had a troubling mutually interdependent relationship since Edmund Burke criticized the ideas behind the French Revolution. The problematic relationship between human rights and self-determination was brilliantly explored back in the 1940’s by Hannah Arendt.

That the articulation of rights in the Universal Declaration of Rights in 1948 was written under the assumption that European colonial empires would be retained is less than Moyn argues a sort of moralistic distraction from European powers hopes to retain their colonies than an attempt to guarantee rights outside of the context in which they had previously resided i.e. the sovereign nation-state. Moyn also makes no mention of international movements that have little connection with the nation-state as such and therefore bear more similarity to human rights as understood today such as the movement to abolish slavery and the rights of women and children.

The Universal Declaration was also written, I should add,  in light the recognition that the of the economic crisis that had collapsed the capitalist economic system and led to the Second World War necessitated the universal adoption of egalitarian systems- social democracy-  as the only forms of society that were sustainable, humanistic, and just.

Where Moyn is helpful is in focusing our view on the contemporary period rather than trying to find deeper historical currents. I found his Last Utopia especially fruitful in understanding how human rights and transhumanism separated course and also in grasping how the separation of either utopian project from the broader question of political and economic composition is, a both Moyn and China Mieville suggest for human rights alone, is likely to lead us into a cul de sac.

Let me start with one of the Soviet dissidents that Moyn thinks was instrumental in launching the human rights movement, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. Sakharov was instrumental in the creation of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. The Americans had gotten their first. The explosion of the American hydrogen bomb over the Bikini Atoll in 1954- a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the fission nuclear weapons dropped on Japan in 1945 signaled the birth of the human capacity to destroy both civilization and life on earth.

The Soviets would explode their own “true hydrogen bomb” a year later in 1955 based largely on Sakharov’s design. Perhaps the responsibility for what he had made possible had affected him, or perhaps his scientific grasp of the destructive potential of these new weapons had made him aware of the universal fragility of life, but by the 1960’s Sakharov had thrown himself into political activism.

His 1968 essay Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom marked his appearance onto the political scene. What is remarkable about this essay is the way it combines different utopian projects that have since become distinct rivals, and which we are only now attempting to recombine. Sakharov moves from the call for international peace to environmentalism to the encouragement of continued technological progress and development of the Third World to human rights.

What unites all of these for Sakharov is both an understanding of a shared human destiny and the recognition of our universal fragility especially in the face of modern, and largely man made, catastrophic risks.

Our challenges and possibilities can not be hermetically sealed off from one another but form a continuum requiring answers on all fronts. The role of science and technology is especially interesting here for Sakharov sees them as not only the source of many of our challenges but as the best and most essential tools we have for solving our problems. Yet, it is the essentially the political choice of what to use those our powers for that is the primary question.

Sakharov’s views are also infused with the perspective that both capitalist and communist societies had arrived at a sort of egalitarian consensus. Communist critiques that capitalism lead to inequality and immiseration and that the victory of communism over capitalism was a moral imperative to save the world’s poor no longer held now that capitalist societies had adopted social democratic policies and aimed at the development and dominance of a broad middle class. The same kind of consensus on social democracy that had been seen in the Universal Declaration.

Sakharov would go on to be a fierce defender of the idea that human right represented the best universvisable ethic for a new global age. Yet the kind of fusion of rights, social democracy, environmentalism and scientific and technological progress seen in his Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom would take a quite different turn in the West a kind of perfusion and splintering of utopian projects whose missions became quite distinct and even rivals for human commitment.

In the late 1960’ and 70’s Western environmentalism took a stand against science and technology a position that is only now being challenged. The struggle for human rights was cut off not merely from environmentalism but from the kinds of social democratic and egalitarian concerns with which it had emerged in tandem. Like environmentalism, human rights had very little to say in terms of the world’s geopolitical order and therefore too often became a ready made masks for US and Western geopolitical interests.

The idea of science and technology as a utopian project also in the 1970’s became separated from its fellow travelers. One can trace this back to the idea of “digitopia” conceived in Silicon Valley which saw in science and technology solutions to all of the world’s problems if only government would get out of the way. Much of contemporary transhumanism would embrace the libertarian assumptions found in “California culture” and this strain is still strong today. This, for instance, is the venture capitalist Peter Thiel a vocal (and financial) supporter of transhumanist causes such as the Methuselah Foundation which our earlier Condorcet would certainly recognize:

 In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’ . . . We are in a deadly race between politics and technology. . . . The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

For this reason Theil supports utopian seasteading the goal of which “is to innovate more minimalist forms of government that would force existing regimes to change under competitive pressure.” Ostensibly, such islands would be havens for the testing of all sorts of transhumanist innovations.

Yet, the “island” we are actually on isn’t in the middle of any ocean, but the earth itself. It was from a recognition of this fundamental shared fragility of not just humanity but all of the earthly life that has come to depend upon it that Sakharov was able to envision the integration of many of the 20th centuries utopian projects. Even transhumanism the most seemingly optimistic of modern utopian projects emerges from the recognition of our fragility- the desire to be “god-like” is the best sign that we are very far from being “gods”.

One might view much of transhumanism today as built on the same sorts of isolationist assumptions that underlie the project of utopian seasteading. The greatest danger would be a transhumanism that serves as a tool in the stratification of societies along class lines where transhumanists put up “islands” within societies whose overall well being they have abandoned in the name of achieving post-human ends.

Yet, it may be the the sheer interdependence of the 21st century world makes it impossible to pursue any utopian project that fails to take the shared fate of humanity into account. There is a great need of a truly global movement that integrates our various problems and hopes as it becomes increasingly clear that modern crises do not fit squarely into singular versions of utopia or dystopia. The current crises in Syria and Egypt are environmental, rights based, technological, social democratic and geopolitical all at the same time.

We need a utopian project that addresses all of these problems simultaneously and articulates and expands human possibilities for everyone. Let’s hope that the recent profusion of early 21st century movements that seek the reintegration of utopian projects help break us out of our log jam. With these I would include a branch of transhumanism known as techno-progressivism which has the potential to bridge the recently emerged gap between human rights (along with the rest of life) and transhumanism. One of the best way to do this might be for techno-progressives to become aware of and adopt some of the new reformulation of rights as “capabilities” rather than the traditional notion of rights as entitlements. But that is for another time.

 

 

 

 

Progress Ancient and Modern: The Oresteia

The Furies and Orestes

It is a modern conceit that ours is a morally progressed age when compared to the world of the ancients. At least that is the impression one gets from reading books such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, or Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. Both Pinker and Wright, each in their own very different ways, give us insight into the brutality that was such a common, indeed daily, part of the lives of our premodern forebears- although they might quibble as to when our moral ascent away from this brutality and primitiveness began- with Pinker thinking it gained traction in the Enlightenment, and Wright pushing it further back to the appearance of the world religions.

There is also a tendency to see ourselves as more theologically or philosophically sophisticated than the ancients. How, for example, could the Greeks actually believe in those anthropomorphic gods who were thought to “live” on Mount Olympus and seemed to fill the Greeks with the twin illnesses of near continuous anxiety and misplaced hope.

I only wish that Pinker or Wright, or those who understand prayer to the gods as a version of “please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me, you’re so big, you’re so big” (@24 min) as the science fiction writer David Brin did in a recent talk,  had read and wrestled with the Greek playwright Aeschylus. For what we find in Aeschylus are tales that push human consciousness in the direction of the confrontation between values which inspire social reflection and change. The end result being something we should very much call moral progress. We also find the whole concept of the “gods” at its deepest with divinities used to personify and bring into conflict the often opposing values and existential conditions that are found in human life. This is perhaps nowhere better on display than in Aeschylus’ tragedy- The Oresteia.

The Oresteia is a trilogy: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides that deals with the issues of love and hatred justice and revenge order and chaos. There would have been a fourth part to the Oresteia, a satyr play, but it is lost. The three surviving plays tell the story of the cursed and at the same time blest (because through them comes the expansion of the human moral imagination) family of the King of Argos -Agamemnon.

Upon returning home from victory in the Trojan War Agamemnon faces a coup plotted by his wife Clytemnestra in an adulterous alliance with his cousin Aegisthus. Both Clytemnestra’s and Aegisthus’ actions are driven by the most primitive manifestation of the human desire for justice- primal revenge. Clytemnestra seeks revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter as “payment” to the gods for safe passage to Troy. Aegisthus is vengeful for other reasons; indeed, he is a human being created for the purpose of revenge itself, sired in incest, with his destiny to kill Agamemnon’s father Atreus for the cannibalistic murder of  his brothers.

It might seem strange to state this way, but the desire for revenge is perhaps the first rung on the long ladder of the human moral imagination (though it is not a step solely limited to humans for you can find it in other social animals as well). The idea of revenge, especially revenge for the harm inflicted on those close to us, demands that we take the rule violated or person harmed to be almost as important as ourselves for revenge comes with mortal risks to those that seek it.

In the Agamemnon revenge or “blood justice” has its due and the king of Argos is murdered by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. But the characters here are, like those in Homer, mere puppets on a string their whole soul and character propelled to preserving the moral order of the cosmos which demands, in the Greek view, that murder, whether accidental or purposeful needs to be repaid with murder. A life exchanged for a life balances the moral scale that bounds mortal existence.

This is the kind of moral order that can be seen, I think, in the Biblical Book of Revelation or the Christian idea of Hell where, in the former, God avenges the evil of the unjust who have heretofore ruled the world, and in the latter, where every earthly sin has its corresponding punishment after death. And though the concept of blood justice might have become more sophisticated for a while under Christians, with the accidental homicide the Greeks thought had moral meaning no longer being placed on the scale of justice and the interior self- the idea of intention- bearing the moral significance of an act, Calvinists would abandon this sophistication with their idea of predestination, which, arguably, brought moral understanding back to the primitive type found in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, a level the ancient Greek Aeschylus in the remaining plays of  The Oresteia would transcend, a meaning hinted at in these lines from the opening of the Agamemnon:

Zeus has led us on to know,

    The Helmsman lays it down as law

    That we must suffer, suffer into truth.

    We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart

    the pain of pain remembered comes again,

    and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.

    From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench

    there comes a violent love. (Lines 177-184)


The second play of The Oresteia, The Libation Bearers, tells the story of Orestes’, the only surviving son of Agamemnon, revenge against his mother and uncle for the murder of his father. The play begins with Orestes visit to Agamemnon’s grave where he secretly spies a group of women shrouded in black bearing libations- offerings to be poured in prayer. The women have come to the grave to find comfort for Clytemnestra who has been haunted by a dream of being strangled by a snake that suckles milk from her breasts. Accompanying the old women is Electra, the sister of Orestes who prays for justice in the name of her father. When Electra spots a lock of what she thinks might be her brother’s hair she cries these lines, which anyone who has ever escaped the grip of despair will understand in their heart:

We call on the gods and the gods well know the storms that torment us, sailors whirled to nothing. But if we are to live and reach a haven, one small seed could grow a mighty tree.  (Lines 201-204 )


When Orestes is reunited with Electra he is urged on by her and sanctioned by the god Apollo to seek justice against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Here the trilogy begins to gain new psychological and moral depth for intersecting in the mind of Orestes are two opposing systems of value- his natural maternal love and loyalty and his paternal bond to the memory of his deceased father. It is Apollo and his “new gods” that represent a new value perhaps best understood as a move beyond the moral ties born of blood to those born from the human capacity to make and keep promises. The crime Apollo seeks justice for is Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon to whom she was bound in marriage.

It is not so much in the act of murdering Clytemnestra that Orestes becomes fully conscious of these competing value systems, his mother after unsuccessfully pleading for her son’s mercy cries out:

“I must be spilling live tears on a tomb of stone”. (Lines 926 p. 219)

Rather, it is in the aftermath that Orestes recognizes the gravity of the decision he has made:

“ What bow could hit the crest of so much pain?” (Lines 1035 p. 224)  

It is in the last surviving play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, that Aeschylus brings all these elements together, and in the process brings the human moral imagination yet another step higher beyond the bounds of either blood ties or social contact.
In Eumenides Orestes is pursued by the Furies (pictured above). The Furies are deities dating back before Zeus overthrew the earth gods- the Titans. They have been given the task by a force more powerful than even the gods- Fate- to seek justice for murder and the breaking of sacred law. Contrasted with the concept of the Furies, the traditional dichotomy between good and evil found in modern religion seems almost simplistic. The Furies are certainly a force of darkness and yet their purpose is to restore the moral order through revenge against those who murder.

Over the victim’s burning head this chant this frenzy striking frenzy lightning crazing the mind this hymn of Fury  chaining the senses, ripping cross the lyre,withering lives of men! (Lines 328-333 )

Unable to find refuge from the Furies in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Orestes, under the advice of Apollo and with the guidance of Hermes flees to Athens where he seeks refuge in the temple of Athena. The Furies delayed by being lulled to sleep by Apollo are eventually aroused by the ghost of Clytemnestra and renew their hunt. Animal like, they follow the scent of Clytemnestra’s blood on Orestes until they find him at the feet of the statue of Athena. When the goddess Athena appears she does something that had not been seen in the entire Oresteia up until now- rather than becoming partisan she shows both sides respect. She takes Orestes at his word that he may have been guilty of violating the letter but not spirit of the cosmic law for which the Furies seek his torment, but she also shows respect to the antiquity of the Furies and their rightful powers. She does not, as Apollo does, see the Furies as monstrous and unnatural- enemies of order- but as forces with a rightful place in the cosmos. Because of this respect the Furies ask Athena to judge Orestes’ case, and here Athena does something amazing. She asks a jury of mortal men to help her decide the matter.   

Too large a matter, some may think, for mortal men to judge.  (Lines 484-485)

Acknowledging that both Orestes and the Furies seem to have a strong case and that judgement in favor of either will have deep implications Athena muses:

So it stands a crisis either way.

 Embrace the one? expel the other? It defeats me.

 But since the matter comes to rest on us, I will appoint the judges

of manslaughter, swear them in, and found a tribunal  here

for all time to come. (Lines 495-499)

Something quite startling has happened here for Athena ( Aeschylus) has managed to make the rules of the gods subject to the reasoned judgement of mortal men. I am unaware of any such a leap anywhere else in religious history. Ultimately, their cases argued the jury tied with Athena breaking it in favor of  Orestes. The Furies feel the whole moral order has come crashing down and swear revenge against Athens for upending the eternal laws of justice.

All’s lost, our ancient powers torn away by their cunning,

ruthless hands, the gods so hard to wrestle down

obliterate us all (Lines 885-887)

Athena again tries to appease the ancient gods of the Furies with respect.

But if you have reverence for Persuasion,

the majesty of Persuasion,

the spell of my voice would appease your fury- (Lines 893-895 )

Athena offers the Furies a home in Athens. Their role to be the violent force behind the justice decided upon by the reasoned decisions of mortal men or the power behind their violent struggles with others. The Furies acceptance of this new and bounded role for their powers ends the trilogy.

The Oresteia thus represents something incredible as a piece of  literature, political philosophy, or religious reflection and I think we should consider it an example of all three. Not only as a great piece of literature does it give us insight into the human experience of injustice and the corresponding desire for revenge, it is also a tale of social evolution showing us how the violence natural to human societies which arises from this need for justice is contained with the establishment of political communities. But this isn’t just any political community- it is not Hobbes’ Leviathan terrorizing men into a state of peace. It is a community built around the active participation of citizens to decide upon and bound matters of justice. As a piece of religious reflection the Oresteia is revolutionary in that it subjects the gods to the reasoned judgement of  mortals even as it urges us to show respect to the wisdom and authority of ancient traditions.

To heed its lessons; now that’s what I would call progress!

Pinker, Foucault and Progress

Panopticon (1)

As readers may know, a little while back I wrote a piece on Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature a book that tries to make the case that violence has been on a steady decline throughout the modern era. Regardless of tragedies such as the horrendous school shooting at Newtown, Pinker wants to us know that things are not as bad as they might seem, that in the aggregate we live in the least violent society to have ever existed in human history, and that we should be thankful for that.

Pinker’s book is copiously researched and argued, but it leaves one with a host of questions. It is not merely that tragic incidents of violence that we see all around us seem to fly in the face of his argument, it is that his viewpoint, at least for me, always seems to be missing something, to have skipped over some important element that would challenge its premise or undermine its argument, a criticism that Pinker has by some sleight of hand skillfully managed to keep hidden from us.

I think an example of this can be seen in Pinker’s treatment of the decline of torture and fall in the rates of violent crime. Both of these developments, at least in Western countries, are undeniable. The question is how are these declines to be explained.  What puzzled me is that Pinker nowhere even mentions the work of the late philosopher, Michel Foucault,  a man who whatever the flaws and oversimplifications of his arguments, thought long  and hard about the questions of both torture and crime. In fact, Foucault is the scholar whose work is most associated with these questions.  It is a very strange oversight, for Pinker does not bring up Foucault even briefly to dismiss his views.

It seems, I am not the only person who asked this question for on his website addressing frequently asked questions Pinker gives the following explanation for ignoring Foucault:

Questioner: You obviously must discuss Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the book that explains the decline of judicial torture in Europe.

Pinker: Actually, I don’t. Despite being a guru in the modern humanities, Foucault is not the only scholar to have noticed that European states eliminated gruesome punishments, and his theory in particular strikes me as eccentric, tendentious, and poorly argued. See J. G. Merquior “Charting carceral society” in his book Foucault (UC Press, 1985), for a lucid deconstruction.

I wanted to see what this “lucid deconstruction” of Foucault by  Merquior (Pinker is nothing if not clever- Foucault is a patron saint to literary deconstructionist), so I checked it out.

Here is how Merquior introduces Foucault’s Discipline and Punish:

 Foucault once called it ‘my first book’ and not without reason: for it is a serious contender for first place among his books as far as language and structure, style of organization and ordering of parts go. It is not a bit less engrossing than Madness and Civilization, nor less original than the order of things.  Once again Foucault unearths the most unexpected of primary sources; once again his reinterpretation of the historical record is as bold as it is thought provoking.” ( Foucault p. 86)

This is the guy Pinker asks us to turn to for a rebuttal of Foucault?

Merquior does have some very valid arguments to make against Foucault, more on that towards the end, but first the views that Pinker does not discuss- Foucault’s view of the rise of the prison.

The theory that Foucault lays out in his Discipline and Punish which provides a philosophical history of the modern prison is essentially this: The prison emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries not as a humanitarian project of Enlightenment philosophes, but as a disciplinary apparatus of society in conjunction with other disciplinary institutions- the insane asylum, the workhouse, the factory, the reformatory, the school, and branches of knowledge- psychology, criminology, that had as their end what might be called the domestication of human beings. It might be hard for us to believe but the prison is a very modern institution- not much older than the 19th century. The idea that you should detain people convicted of a crime for long periods perhaps with the hope of “rehabilitating” them just hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind before then. Instead, punishment was almost immediate, whether execution, physical punishment or fines. With the birth of the prison,  gone was the emotive wildness of the prior era- the criminal wracked by sin and tortured for his transgression against his divine creator and human sovereign. In its place rose up the patient, “humane” transformation of the “abnormal”, “deviant” individual into a law and norm abiding member of society.

For Foucault, the culmination of all this, in a philosophical sense, is the Panopticon prison designed by Jeremy Bentham (pictured above). It is a structure that would give prison officials a 24/7 omniscient gaze into the activities of the individual prisoner and at the same time leaves the prisoner completely isolated and atomized. In the panopticon Foucault sees the metaphor for our own homogenizing conformist and totalizing society.

What Foucault succeeded in doing in Discipline and Punish was putting the horrific judicial torture of the pre-Enlightenment era and post-Enlightenment policy of mass imprisonment side-by-side. In doing this he goads us to ask whether the system we have to today is indeed as humane, as enlightened, compared to what came before as we are prone to believe.

This is exactly what Pinker responding to a question on imprisonment does not allow us to do:

Questioner:What about the American imprisonment craze?

Pinker: As unjust as many current American imprisonment practices are, they cannot be compared to the lethal sadism of criminal punishment in earlier centuries

Okay, true enough, but for me, this answer misses the point of the question. The underlying assumption behind the question seems to be “yes, violence might have declined, but isn’t locking up millions of people - six million to be exact – a number larger than those of Stalin’s gulag archipelago, 60 % of whom are there for nonviolent offenses, a form of violence?” Or perhaps “might the decline in violence be the result of mass imprisonment?” Admitting either would force Pinker to accept that the moral progress he details is perhaps not as unequivocal as he wants us to believe.

Here, I think, is where Pinker’s attachment to the Enlightenment idea of progress leads clearly to complacency. Pinker loves graphs, so here’s a graph:

U.S._incarceration_rates_1925_onwards

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_incarceration_rate

It seems frankly obtuse to not connect the decline in crime with the sheer number of people now being locked up. It is tragic, but the connection between rising rates of imprisonment and declining crime rates can be seen even in Pinker’s vaunted Western Europe where the rate of imprisonment rose- though to nothing like the obscene rate it rose in the United States- and the crime rate fell in tandem.

Yet, unless the scale of imprisonment is put in context we are likely to see imprisonment of nonviolent offenders as less than morally problematic, and merely as an unfortunate consequence of the need to protect ourselves from violent crime by throwing the net of criminal justice as wide as it can be thrown, something Pinker seems to do when he states:

A regime that trawls for drug users or other petty delinquents will net a certain number of violent people as a by-catch, further thinning the ranks of the violent people who remain on the streets. (BA 122)

The strange thing here is that the uniquely American practice of locking up every law breaker without distinguishing between the risks posed by the accused is not only clearly disproportional and unjust it has makes no apparent effect on the actual rate of violent crime. The US incarcerates a whopping 743 persons per 100,00 whereas Great Britain lock up 154 per the same amount  and the US still has an intentional homicide rate 4 times higher than in the UK.

By seeing modern history almost exclusively through the lens of moral progress, Pinker blinds himself to the question of whether or not our own age is engaged in practices that a more progressive future will regard with horror.

The question of imprisonment and its relationship to the decline of crime is not the only place where Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature dismisses a messy, often harsh, reality in the name of a simplified Enlightenment notion of progress. This can be seen in Pinker’s notions regarding contemporary slavery and war.

In a strange way, Pinker’s insistence that we recognize the reality of moral and social progress might short-circuit our capacity for progress in the future. You can see this in his treatment of “human trafficking” a modern day euphemism for slavery. As always, Pinker wants to let us know that current figures are exaggerated, as always, he reminds us that what we have here is no comparison to the far crueler reality of slavery found in the past. But this viewpoint comes at the cost of continuity. Anti-slavery advocates such as those of the organization Free the Slaves assume a moral continuity between themselves and the earlier abolition movements- and well they should. But Pinker’s rhetoric is less “we have almost reached the summit” than one of undermining the moral worth of their struggle with his damned proportionality- that things are better than ever now because “proportional to world population” not as many people are murdered, die in war, or are enslaved.

Numbers off or not- anywhere even in the ballpark of 25 million slaves today- the high estimate- still constitute an enormous amount of human suffering- such as innumerable rapes, beatings, and forced labor (no doubt Pinker would try to put a number on them)- suffering Pinker does not explore.

What holds for slavery in Better Angels holds for war as well. He is at pains to point out the casualty figures of the most savage conflict of the last generation- a conflict most westerners have probably not even heard about- The Great War of Africa- are grossly exaggerated, that the war only killed 1.5 million- not the 5 million human beings often reported.

Pinker’s right about one thing- wars between the world’s most powerful states have, at least for the moment disappeared.Wars between the great powers have always been the greatest killers in history, and we haven’t had any of those since 1945, and the question is- why? Pinker will not allow the obvious answer to his question, namely, that the post 1945 era is the age of nuclear weapons, that for the first time in history, war between great powers meant inevitable suicide. His evidence against the “nuclear peace” is that more nations have abandoned nuclear weapons programs than have developed such weapons. The fact is perhaps surprising but nonetheless accurate. It becomes a little less surprising, and a little less encouraging in Pinker’s sense, when you actually look at the list of countries who have abandoned them and why. Three of them: Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine are former Soviet republics and were under enormous Russian and US pressure- not to mention financial incentives- to give up their weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two of them- South Africa and Libya- were attempting to escape the condition of being international pariahs. Another two- Iraq and Syria had their nuclear programs derailed by foreign powers. Three of them: Argentina, Brazil, and Algeria faced no external existential threat that would justify the expense and isolation that would come as a consequence of  their development of nuclear weapons and five others: Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany were woven tightly into the US security umbrella.

Countries that face a perceived existential threat from a nuclear power or conventionally advanced power (and Argentina never faced an existential threat from Great Britain, that is Britain never threatened to conquer the county during the Falklands War) would appear to have a pretty large incentive to develop nuclear weapons insofar as they do not possess strong security guarantees from one of the great powers.

Pinker believes that Kant’s democratic peace theory (that democracies tied together by links of trade and international organization do not fight one another) helps explain the decline of war, but that does not explain why the US and Soviet Union did not go to war or India and Pakistan, or Taiwan and China, or South and North Korea. He pins his hopes on the normative change against nuclear weapons found in a Global Zero a movement that includes an eclectic  group of foreign policy figures including realists such as Henry Kissinger that hopes to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

While I find the goal of a nuclear weapons free world laudable, the problem I see in this is that weaker powers lacking advanced conventional weapons could very well understand this movement as a way for the big powers to preserve the rationality of war. In fact, the worse thing imaginable would be for great power war to regain its plausibility. If the recent success of Israel’s  “Iron Dome” is any indication we may end up there even without the world abandoning its nuclear weapons. Great powers, such as the US and China, may be more likely to engage in brinkmanship if they start to think they could survive a nuclear exchange. Recent confrontations between China and its neighbors and East Asia’s quite disturbing military buildup do not portend well for 21st century pacifism.

Global Zero might with tragic irony prove more dangerous that the current quite messy regime if it is not followed in parallel with an effort to solve the world’s outstanding disputes and to build a post- US- as- sole- superpower security architecture-not to mention efforts to limit conventional weapons which while we were sleeping have become just as deadly as nuclear weapons as well. Where everyone feels safe there is no need for everyone to be armed to the teeth.  

Pinker recoils from messy explanations or morally ambiguous reality because he is wedded to the idea that the decline in violence was driven by a change in norms- a change that he thinks began with the Enlightenment. In his eyes, we are indeed morally superior to our predecessors in that we have a more inclusive and humane moral sense. Pinker turns to the ethical philosopher- Peter Singer- and his idea of the “escalator of reason” for a philosophical explanation of this normative change. Singer thinks that overtime human generations reason their way to inclusiveness and humanity by expanding our “circle of empathy”. Once only one’s close kin sat in the circle of concern, then fellow members of one’s state or faith, now perhaps all of humanity or, as Singer himself is most famous for in his Animal Liberation, the circle can be extended to non-human species.


Singer, however, is an odd duck to peg yourself to as a kind of philosophical backdrop for modern moral progress. A reader of Better Angels who did not know about Singer would be left unaware of just how controversial Singer’s views are. If memory serves me correctly, this fact that his views are something less than mainstream is tucked away in a footnote at the back of Pinker’s book.

Here is Singer from his  Writings on an Ethical Life:

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. (189)

I should be clear here that Singer is not talking about abortion, but infanticide, indeed he sees both practices as acceptable and morally equivalent:

That a fetus is known to be disabled is a widely accepted grounds for abortion. Yet in discussing abortion, we saw that birth does not mark a morally significant dividing line.  I can not see how one could defend the view that fetuses may be “replaced” before birth, but newborn infants may not be” (191)

If this is the escalator of reason I want to get off.

Much as with the case with Foucault, Pinker doesn’t spend even a page or two engaging with these ideas. With 802 pages to its name a few more pages would seem a small price to pay, but again they are ignored, perhaps largely because they detract from Pinker’s Enlightenment notions of moral progress. Even briefly grappling with these ideas, for me at least, seems to lead to all sorts of interesting and often quite disturbing possibilities that are outside the simplistic dichotomies of progress and anti-progress set up but Pinker and Foucault.

Our society has certainly made progress morally over past ages in its abolition of torture and slavery, in it’s extension of rights to the formerly oppressed , its inclusion of women in political, economic and intellectual life, its freedom of speech and thought,
not to mention the vast increases in our standards of living,  and yet…

May be our society has not so much progressed morally in the sense of empathy as it has become squeamish about violence, and physical coercion (real violence that is- media and video games seem to reveal an obsessive bloodlust).  What we have done is managed to effectively conceal violence, and wherever possible to have adopted social and psychological methods of manipulation and control- including surveillance- in place of, to use military speak, “kinetic” methods. Our factory farms kill and confine more animals than have ever suffered such a fate- only we never see it. (Perhaps that is part of the explanation for why our urbanizing world has become so squeamish about violence, the fact that so few of us are engaged in the violence against animals found in agricultural life). We do not physically torture but confine and conceal far more persons than were ever caught in the cruel but paltry nets of pre-modern states. Chattel slavery and its savagery are a thing of the past, but what we have now are millions of invisible slaves, kidnapped, locked in houses, people who are our very neighbors suffering the cruel tyranny of one human being over another.


Our wars are fought in regions deemed too dangerous to be covered by mainstream media and our images of them sanitized for prime-time viewing.  Our bloated and growing militaries represent bottled up potential energy that could level whole civilizations, indeed destroy the human species and the earth, should circumstances ever sweep us up and call it to burst forth. Yet, even our soldiers are averse to killing, so we are building machines capable of murdering more effectively and without conscience to replace them.

We do not expose our newborns on the rocks because they are girls or are disabled, but select against them in the womb so that 100 million girls have “gone missing” and whole categories of human beings are disappearing from the world, and some, such as the geneticist Julian Savulescu argue it is our “moral duty” to perform this “redesign” of the human species.

This returns me to the critic Merquior. Merquior makes the valid critique of Foucault that he is a sloppy historian, that he wants history to neatly fit his theory, which history can never do. Above all Merquior sees the flaws in Foucault’s argument stemming from his a prior position that the Enlightenment was less a humanitarian than a proto-totalitarian movement. This makes it impossible for Foucault to see the movement against torture and the creation of the modern prison system as anything more that an expression of a Nietzschean “will to power”.

But Merquior asks:

Why should the historian choose between the angelic image of a demo-liberal bourgeois order, unstained by class domination, and the hellish picture of ubiquitous coercion? Is not the actual historical record a mixed one, showing real libertarian and equalizing trends besides several configurations of class power and coercive cultural traits?  (98)  

Pinker might have done better had he employed Merquior’s critique of Foucault to himself, for, by seeing in modern developments the hand of progress from savagery to civilization, Pinker ends up blinding himself to the more complex historical picture as much as Foucault who saw in modern trends little but the move towards social totalitarianism. Indeed, Pinker could save his Better Angels by adding just one chapter as an afterward. The chapter would look at not where we have come from, but where we are and the struggles still left to us. It would provide a human face to the modern day suffering of those in our progressive age who are still enslaved and who continue to be killed and maimed by war. Those murdered and raped and those suffering behind bars for crimes that have harmed no one but themselves and those who love them. It would be a face Pinker had taken from them by turning them into numbers. It would seek to locate and avoid the many cliffs that might just plunge us downward, and say to all of us “we have just a little ways to go, but for the sake of our own enlightened legacy, we must have the forward thinking and endurance to climb onward, and above all, not to fall.”

* An earlier version of this post was published on December 30, 2011

Kant’s Utopian Daydream

I am currently reading a monster of a book. At 802 pages, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, leaves even a voracious reader like myself a little winded. Pinker’s argument is that the world has become less and less violent over time, so much so that we now live in what is the most peaceful period of human history ever.
I know what you’re thinking, but Pinker should not be dismissed as just another Dr. Pangloss preaching that we live “in the best of all possible worlds”. The sheer volume of statistics, and studies ,and stories, Pinker brings together make a strong case that the world has become progressively less violent, though it is a case that does indeed have some holes. It will be best then to deal with his argument in digestible pieces rather than all in one gulp, something I will try to do in a series of installments.

But not in this post, for Pinker has managed to get me sidetracked by drawing my attention to the writings of Immanuel Kant, a philosophical giant who never left his native city of Koenigsberg, but whose imagination stretched out to embrace not just deep questions on the nature of thought and ethics, which I knew, but the history and fate of the species, and indeed the state and future of intelligence in the universe, something I did not.

I can vividly remember, many moons ago now, attending a philosophy class as an undergraduate with the professor trying to explain Kant’s noumenon (thing in itself) vs phenomenon (appearance) with the vague feeling coming over me that my head was about to explode. Those ideas from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his famous guide to ethical behavior, the categorical imperative, which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” were basically all I remembered of old Meister Kant.

Pinker’s fascinating argument, however, made me want to take a second look. Better Angels of our Nature, talks extensively about Kant’s essay On Perpetual Peace, but I became more interested in an essay of Kant’s Pinker mentions, but discusses much less,an essay entitled: Idea of a Universal History from A Cosmopolitical Point of View. (Except for Nietzsche, German philosophers are never easy on the ears.) Kant sets his sights pretty high in this essay where he explores whether, in the seemingly senseless tumult of human history, some pattern or purpose can be seen.

Like in his other works, Kant sets his argument in a series of propositions.  These propositions essentially give us his idea of progress, an 18th century idea that the human species had entered a new and brighter phase of history, an “enlightenment” after the cave- black barbarism of the “dark ages. “

What I found so interesting about Kant’s idea of progress in this essay was the way he seems to be groping towards ideas about human potential, the evolution of mind, the trajectory of human history, and even the possibilities of intelligence in the universe beyond the earth that we can, two centuries later, see much more clearly. These were ideas that could only be put into what we would recognize as a modern context by the theory of evolution, something that would have to wait 64 years into until Darwin published his Origin of Species.

Kant speculates that any creature will move towards the full manifestation of its potential, and that the full potential of all creatures are destined to be reached at least  over the long arc of time.  For human beings, this potential is definitively historical in that every generation builds on the accomplishments of the one before, so that the possibility space of human potential expands with each new person born into the world. (First and Second Propositions) .

These ideas are remarkably similar to Kevin Kelly’s idea of the relationship between human beings and the expanding possibilities opened up by technology found in his book What Technology Wants. For example, Kelly thinks that only a certain level of technological development in musical instruments could have allowed a genius like Mozart to achieve his full potential.  In Kelly’s religiously inspired view, God desires for there to exist the maximum number of perspectives and intelligences, who in turn realize their potential, and therefore constitute a reflection of God’s own divine intelligence.

They also echo the explorations of two fellow bloggers whose work I really love both of whom, from quite different perspectives, attempt to understand the evolution of human consciousness and spirituality in light of the findings of modern science and what it has told us about our place in the universe. These bloggers are John Hyland who writes the blog, John’s Consciousnessand James Cross who writes at Broad Speculations.   Check them out.

To return to Kant, in The Third and Fourth Propositions Kant reflects on how humankind had uniquely been granted almost nothing by nature except raw intelligence, and therefore, had to develop all of its capacities from their own powers of reason.  As mentioned earlier, Kant has no knowledge of the theory of evolution, though what he’s talking about in modern parlance is something we would probably call cultural evolution. And much like evolution in the biological sense, he sees innovation caused by both environmental pressures against which human beings have no natural protection, and competition for scarce resources, especially between human beings themselves. Kant deliciously calls this natural competition human beings’ “unsocial sociability”.  Humans have both a deep need to be social and the need to be separate and provide for themselves. They naturally compete with one another, and if they did not humankind would have found themselves stuck in a kind of effortless paradise reminiscent of the Eloi of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine or the Greek poet, Hesiod’s, Golden Age.  Kant writes:

Without those qualities of an unsocial kind out of which this Antagonism arises which viewed by themselves are certainly not amiable but which everyone must necessarily find in the movements of his own selfish propensities men might have led an Arcadian shepherd life in complete harmony contentment and mutual love but in that case all their talents would have forever remained hidden in their germ. As gentle as the sheep they tended such men would hardly have won for their existence a higher worth than belonged to their domesticated cattle they would not have filled up with their rational nature the void remaining in the Creation in respect of its final End.

Like other social contract theorists Kant thinks humankind’s natural antagonism leads to the creation of a coercive state which eventually gives way to mutually recognized law. The reason for the creation of a coercive state is that man as an animal needs a “master”, but this need for a master can not ultimately be fulfilled by other human beings because these “masters” are other animals as well. The answer is for human beings to place themselves under the rule of Law. For, to be ruled by Law is at one and the same time to be ruled by both an product of human intelligence and something that does not share in their animal nature.

As was the case for Hobbes, states, in Kant’s scheme, exist in a condition analogous to individuals before a the state has come into being. That is, in a condition of extreme and often violent competition. The solution Kant sees to this would be an international institution under which the world’s of representative democracies would voluntarily place themselves under in effect constraining their sovereignty with the limits of international law. An issue he more fully explores in On Perpetual Peace.

Here Kant gets interesting for he is indeed serious when he uses the phrase “cosmopolitical” in the title to his essay. The scope of his speculation expands beyond the earth and humankind to other worlds and different intelligent species. In a fascinating footnote he writes of alien worlds:

The part that has to be played by man is therefore a very artificial one. We do not know how it may be with the inhabitants of other planets or what are the conditions of their nature but if we execute well the commission of Nature we may certainly flatter ourselves to the extent of claiming a not insignificant rank among our neighbours in the universe. It may perhaps be the case that in those other planets every individual completely attains his destination in this life .With us it is otherwise only the species can hope for this.

I find this quote interesting for several reasons. For one, it seems we, or our children, will likely be the very first generation in human history to discover life elsewhere in the Milky Way. And not just bacteria, but fully developed biospheres like our own earth. People often wonder how this will affect humanity’s idea of itself, and it is a helpful reminder that for a long stretch of time after Galileo discovered “other-worlds” orbiting Jupiter, many people actually accepted, and expected , other fully developed sister-earths to exist and eventually be found. It wasn’t until telescopes were improved and long after probes sent out into space that we realized our own solar system was largely dead, and our living planet unique. In fact, the Church’s struggle with Galileo may have been much more about this implication of other earths being out than it was about any contradiction with scripture. If anyone knows of any books looking at Galileo from this angle, please share.

Kant also seems to be suggesting that human beings are collective in their intelligence in a way other species need not be, though I have no idea how to understand this without adopting the position that Kant was somehow blinded by his lack of knowledge regarding evolution- unable as I am to imagine any form of true intelligence that was truly fully formed to begin with and not the product of prior events or social in nature. Unless, that is, if he is thinking about the kinds of imagined intelligence found in immortals.

In his ninth and final proposition Kant seems to sum the whole thing up:

Much more than all this is attained by the idea of Human History viewed as founded upon the assumption of a universal plan in Nature. For this idea gives us a new ground of hope as it opens up to us a consoling view of the future in which the human species is represented in the far distance as having at last worked itself up to a condition in which all the germs implanted in it by Nature may be fully developed and its destination here on earth fulfilled.

In other words, Kant dreams that we will someday arrive in utopia, our potential fulfilled, our worst characteristics reformed.

There are intimations here not just of Kevin Kelly, and my fellow bloggers, but of Hegel, and Teilhard de Chardin, and Condorcet, and Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Wright, and Ray Kurzweil, and now, as I started this post, with Steven Pinker.

But here is where I have a bone to pick with Pinker who uses Kant as a launching point for his own progressive view of human history. For, the assumption found throughout Better Angels of Our Nature is that he (Pinker) and the and other prophet of progress who share his liberalism do real history, have a handle on reality, and are free from dangerous assumptions, while those “other guys”, the prophets of progress that he deems il-liberal, such as Marx or the French Revolutionaries, among others do “utopia”,  imagine a world which never was and can never be, and by even attempting to make it so show themselves to be lunatic, dangerous. But there is something not quite right about this view of ,and so, it is will be to this selective anti-utopianism on the part of Pinker that I will turn next time…